Ethics inquiry could be awkward

Since February, Baltimore's Board of Ethics has delayed a detailed review of City Council President Sheila Dixon's participation in official business that benefited a company that employed her sister.

Next month, the City Council president becomes mayor, giving her authority over the very board charged with offering an opinion on her actions.

The transition - which becomes official when Mayor Martin O'Malley becomes governor - creates a situation that is at least awkward.

While Dixon's staff says she has not expressed interest in replacing the board, at least two of the five members could leave soon after O'Malley's departure.

"We now have an incoming mayor who is going to choose members of the board that is charged with investigating her," said James C. Benton, ethics director of Common Cause, a national watchdog organization in Washington. "The first words that come to mind are: hot mess."

Ruffin Brown, Dixon's executive director, said the council president is content to let any reviews proceed and that she has "given no indication she will change the ethics board."

"She wants the process to take its course," Brown said. "She will be proven to be free and clear."

City Ethics Board Chairman Robert L. Bogomolny, president of the University of Baltimore, declined to be interviewed.

Avery Aisenstark, the ethics board's legal counsel and director of Baltimore's legislative reference agency, said it is not unusual for an "administrative body to hold back on potential action when a similar matter is under investigation for criminal action."

"The state prosecutor has better tools of investigation," Aisenstark said, while the ethics panel might get in the way.

In February, Bogomolny said his panel would begin examining whether Dixon acted properly during a City Council committee hearing in January and at three Board of Estimates meetings over the past two years on matters involving a company called Utech, which had employed her sister Janice.

The city's ethics law prohibits public officials from participating in "any matter" that involves a sibling's interest or the interest of a relative's employer. It says public officials must recuse themselves from participating in such matters, if they have knowledge of their relative's position. In addition, the law forbids officials from using their "prestige of office" for the private gain of another person.

Dixon's office had said that staff did not alert the council president that her sister's company was on Board of Estimates agendas. At the council hearing on whether Comcast, the city's cable television provider, was still employing minority subcontractors, Dixon specifically asked about Utech without mentioning her sister's employment.

The ethics law requires public officials to disclose whether siblings or other relatives work for companies that do business with the city or are regulated by the city. Utech was regulated by the city's Minority and Women's Business Opportunity Office, but Dixon did not disclose her sister's job until after The Sun reported it.

In March, the state prosecutor began investigating Dixon, her office, Utech and several other city agencies. State investigators also began probing another issue: $500,000 that Dixon's office had paid to her former campaign chairman's company, Ultimate Network Integration, without a proper written contract. An e-mail obtained by The Sun showed that Dixon's chief of staff, Beatrice Tripps, worked out a deal to keep payments under $5,000.

City procurement rules require that all contracts over $5,000 be approved by the five-member Board of Estimates, which is chaired by Dixon and includes Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, O'Malley and two mayoral Cabinet members.

After The Sun articles, Dixon disciplined two staff members.

Ethics experts said they believe the city's ethics panel should rule on the matters before Dixon becomes mayor and not wait for state prosecutors.

Although Maryland State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh neither confirms nor denies investigations, city officials and others confirm search warrants and the receipt of several subpoenas for documents.

"Why do you have an ethics board in the first place if it doesn't do anything?" Benton, of Common Cause, asked.

Dixon and her sister have been in ethical trouble before. In July 2003, The Sun reported that Dixon's sister Janice worked in the council president's office as a paid employee. Several other council members also employed relatives.

Less than three months later, the ethics board issued an opinion saying such employment violated city regulations, forcing the council president to fire her sister.

The ethics board, which was chaired by Norman E. Parker Jr. at the time, issued the October ruling even though the U.S. attorney's office had launched an investigation a month earlier. The federal investigation ended in 2005 without any action.

Julian L. Lapides, chairman of the state ethics commission and a former Baltimore ethics board member, said the city panel should not wait for state prosecutors.

"If there are ethical matters, they should address them independently of the state prosecutor," Lapides said. "To avoid any future conflicts by virtue of her appointments it would be in [Dixon's] best interests to have it resolved prior to having her take office [as mayor]."

According to city rules, the mayor appoints four of the five ethics board members. The City Council confirms three of those choices, whose seats expire next December. The city solicitor, who is appointed by the mayor, names the fifth member.

The two designees of the mayor and the solicitor technically become open upon O'Malley's departure, though the individuals can stay until replaced.

One of the seats is filled by Deputy Solicitor Donald Huskey. O'Malley's solicitor, Ralph Tyler, is widely expected to be leaving for a state job. Dixon would name a new solicitor who could then appoint a new board member.

O'Malley's current designee is a police official, Kristen M. Mahoney. Mahoney would not comment on whether she will stay on the board.

Board member Dana Petersen Moore is an attorney and partner with Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP, and president of the Charles Village Civic Association.

Moore said the board is in a difficult position of either rushing to complete a ruling before Dixon becomes mayor, or waiting. She said the board has not discussed the issue of Dixon's ability to appoint new members.

"I don't have an opinion on what she should or shouldn't do," she said. "I don't know if the ethics commission would be viewed positively if we rushed to a judgment."

If the ethics board determines that a violation has occurred, it can take several actions, according to the city code: issue a reprimand; issue a cease-and-desist order for the action causing a violation; seek judicial relief; or refer the matter to other authorities for further disciplinary action, "including censure or removal."

Several of Dixon's potential challengers in the 2007 election for mayor did not want to discuss the matter.

But Frank M. Conaway Sr., clerk of the Circuit Court and a candidate for mayor, said he worries about the possible conflict of Dixon making appointments to a board that intends to investigate her actions.

"Seems to me we'd be better off if she turned those appointments over to someone else," Conaway said. "I'm hopeful that they will find that she did nothing unethical. But it should be done before she is sworn in as mayor."

Brown, Dixon's executive director, said the council president is more eager than anyone to see all probes completed.


Recommended on Baltimore Sun